by Heidi Bullman

Despite the availability of high-quality healthcare in the United States there are still a large number of underserved communities unable to access even the most basic medical care. Rural communities, 80 percent of which are designated as medically underserved, are widely recognized, but the challenge extends to low-income populations, Native American communities, and migrant farmworkers.

“The rural healthcare crisis  and lack of healthcare for underserved communities aren’t new phenomena and though it’s a popular topic of discussion, there hasn’t been much done to put a stop to the problem,” said Lisa Hines, MBA,  former director of telehealth services for Greenville Healthcare System and now Strategic Advisor for Healthcare at NetApp. “While there are obvious benefits to brick and mortar healthcare operations, there’s a more immediate and accessible solution that comes from using virtual services such as telehealth and telemedicine.”

To address the problem head on, Prisma Health, the largest not-for-profit healthcare organization in South Carolina, chose to implement telehealth solutions.

“[Implementation] started with a need and interest to expand access to hospital-based services in rural and underserved areas. That interest grew to other hospital-based services and sites, ambulatory services, and non-traditional care sites such as homes,” explained Amelia Bischoff, MHA, Director of Digital Health Services at Prisma Health.

By engaging both Prisma’s clinical and executive leadership, the organization created a virtual healthcare system to help accommodate the 744,386 residents living in rural South Carolina. Initially, the program was launched to serve stroke patients. Over time, more needs arose across a wide variety of patient populations including school-based and subspecialty/complex care programs for children, adult urgent care, chronic care management, behavioral health, and post-operative care.

By implementing these services, “Prisma Health has created new access points, improved quality of care, increased patient and provider retention, and avoided unnecessary emergency department visits,” said Bischoff.

Another pioneer in telehealth services and one named as a National Telehealth Center of Excellence by the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Medical University of South Carolina has also seen great success since implementing virtual care services. Starting over a decade ago in 2005, MUSC’s grassroots initiatives to address health disparities were initially created to serve those needing maternal fetal medicine, telestroke, telepsych and critical care. The institution’s telehealth program today comprises more than 80 unique telehealth services, connecting with close to 300 sites across South Carolina, including a 32-hospital telestroke network and one of the fastest growing school-based telehealth networks in the country.

Through the implementation of telehealth services, the Medical University of South Carolina has seen many positive outcomes and more to come according to Shawn Valenta RRT, MHA, Administrator of Telehealth for the Medical University of South Carolina.

“Prior to telehealth, less than 40 percent of the state’s population was within a one-hour drive of time -sensitive expert stroke care. Now with telestroke, 100 percent of our state has that level of access,” he added. “MUSC’s school-based telehealth team also demonstrated a significant reduction (over 20 percent) in emergency department visits for asthmatic children. When you look at actual versus predicted mortality statistics, Tele-ICU has saved hundreds of lives across our state.”

With most healthcare providers at the beginning of their telehealth journey, there’s much to be learned from those who have paved the way. Prisma Health and the Medical University of South Carolina have made strides not just for the patients and communities they serve, but for the healthcare industry as a whole. What the future holds for telehealth and telemedicine is still a little unclear as healthcare providers still need to overcome regulatory obstacles and technology challenges. But what we do know is that the benefits that telehealth bring – from improved patient care to physician retention – makes the effort and the investment well worthwhile.

Want to learn more about telehealth? In our next article in this telehealth series we explore how healthcare organizations are overcoming the challenges they face. Subscribe here.

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